Dying as a Process of Healing
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Arriving at the home of a hospice patient one morning, I immediately notice a change in her behavior. Carting her oxygen tank behind her, she shuffles over to meet me and hugs me with her tiny arms. I can barely feel her physical presence, but her essence seems stronger than I have ever experienced it. Pulling up her shirt, she says, “Can you see that my tumors are shrinking?” I notice that the growths, to me, appear to be larger than they were at my previous visit. I also observe that she has lost even more weight. She says she weighs 84 pounds now, but she looks slimmer than that, her thighs not even the circumference of my upper arms.
We settle in for a chat, her words delivered rapid-fire with great excitement. She tells me all about her family’s Christmas and instructs me to gather materials so that she can share with me the beauty of the gifts she had given and received. By far the greatest of these gifts she is sharing with me is her healing.
For about ten minutes, she has so much energy ~ almost exponentially more than I have ever seen. Eventually, she says, “I’m a bit manic today; can you feel it?” Although she has a history of Bipolar Disorder, I have never seen her like this. Is that what this is, a manic state?
“I know my family is worried to see me acting like I am manic. But I don’t think that’s what this is.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“This is me getting better. I know I being cured. I am not dying anymore”.
I wondered: Is she being cured?
Or is she, perhaps, being healed?
And is there a difference? Through my years of dying and accompanying others as they are dying, I have come to know the vast distance that exists between curing and healing.
Several years after my first surgery, I was speaking to a beloved family member about the possibility (or, from the viewpoint of many of my doctors, the inevitability) of me having another surgery. She was shocked to hear that there was a likelihood that I would need at least one, and perhaps several, more invasive procedures on my heart and lungs in order to live. “What?” she cried, “But I thought you were cured?!” Many, many people had hoped – or perhaps even assumed – that one day spent in the operating room would result in my body’s magical transformation into the shape and condition it was in years ago. However, this did not happen. While my surgeons were able to stall the advancement of my condition for several years, they were not able to reverse the damage that had already been done to my heart and lungs, nor was it possible to “fix” me so that from that day forward I would have no further damage occurring to this area of my body.
I found that most of those people closest to me became uncomfortable when I attempted to discuss death at any level of depth. For the most part, it seemed that they wanted me to have been cured, to never have to worry about dying again. This was not my experience. I was not cured; I was left with a serious heart and lung condition that severely compromised my health. My body would never return to the physical form it was in before this illness was introduced into it; likewise, I could never return to the spiritual or psychological condition I had been in when I first met death through this experience. I could not forget what I had learned, I was not willing to stop visiting the states that I first encountered during my months of dying, and I did not desire to simplify the process in order to make others more comfortable with it.
I absolutely was healed.
However, I had not been cured . . . and this was a problem for some of my friends and family members. It had been difficult for them to watch me growing more and more ill and to face their fears of losing me. So many of them had created a fantasy of the quick and easy erasure of my condition with no evidence that it had ever occurred. They were not alone; often, in our culture, we are searching for the magic pill that will make everything better, the time machine that will return us to the state of health we were in long ago.
This constant desire to return to things, times, and conditions that have passed has everything to do with curing and nothing to do with healing.
“To heal” is derived from the Old English word haelen, meaning “to make whole, sound, and well.” True healing does not necessarily involve returning to a previous state of health. Instead, healing is the continual process of becoming whole – being whole – even when parts of our being do not function according to any ideal concept of health. It is possible to heal regardless of the medical condition we may have, because healing is something that happens from within us.
In contrast, curing is something that occurs to us rather than within us, and it relies on the removal of all signs of illness or infirmity. It fascinates me that we use the term “to cure” to also describe the process of saving or preserving meat, often by covering it with salt and nitrites in order to make it last longer. Isn’t that also what we desire in our own curing – that we preserve one specific state of health as long as possible?
There have been times when I wanted my body to be cured – to be rid of any trace of heart and lung disease and to stop progressing in illness as I grew older. During these times, my model for my health and healing was something that was outside of me. I wanted my body to look or function in a certain way: the way it used to look or function or the way someone else’s body looked or functioned or some idea of how a healthy body should look and function.
At these times I was not focused on making myself whole, sound, and well, except in the very specific terms of a single concept of what that might look like. These fantasies were based more on curing than on healing.
Although my condition has not been cured, I continue to heal each and every day. If I had my heart set on being the Amy I used to be, the Amy with a perfect heart and two fully functioning lungs, I would be in a continual state of suffering. But I eventually learned that I had to release that Amy – the Past Amy and any Future Amy in order to create Healthy Amy right here, right now.
Once a friend of mine shared with me his experience of receiving some test results and finding out that he was HIV-positive. The doctor sat down with him and told him that the person he had been previously was dead. That from now on, he needed to care for himself as he was in this new incarnation, to behave as if he were an entirely new person. Although he was taken aback by the physician’s directness, my friend really took in the words he was told and opened to their wisdom. In the days following that visit, he worked very hard to see himself as an entirely new person, to release any attachments he had to the body and life he used to have or to any constructs of the body and life he “should” have. He came absolutely present with where his body and life were right at that moment, and from there began to create wholeness, soundness, and wellness.
I am not the person I was twenty years ago, not only because I now have a new heart and one lung that no longer works, but because I am different each and every day. Each part of my being – physical, emotional, mental, and energetic – is in a state of constant flux. And when I try to return to a state that was present years ago or to maintain any specific state at all, I am moving against the current of life. Healing involves us moving with the flow of life, creating wholeness within every aspect of our beings at all times.
And healing involves surrender.
Surrender does not mean giving up on well-being – quite the opposite, in fact. What we are surrendering is our idea of what that well-being will look like. We are surrendering our control over exactly the ways in which it will manifest in our lives at any given point. We are letting go of all of our attachments to one specific concept or manifestation of wellness so that we open ourselves up to the truth that there are countless opportunities for wellness in each and every moment of our lives. I came to know that this is what my patient was doing, even as she showed every sign of coming nearer to death.
“My family members do not want to believe that I am healing,” she whispered to me. “They say that they do not want to have false hope.” As I watched her, radiant with this new energy emerging through her emaciated and exhausted body, I thought, “They are wrong; this is her way of healing.” Was that time of “mania” leading up to her death part of her healing? Did she really think that her tumors were shrinking physically? Or had she become aware of them shrinking in her vision of herself, in her experience of herself? As she sat on her bed, her body the image of everything our culture tells us is sick and weakened and dying, she shared with me a life force that was strong and vibrant and filled with love. Isn’t that healing?
Her chuckle was weak but sincere ~ “This was my third last Christmas, you know. I have had three Christmases that were supposed to be my last. I’m not sure if next year we’ll be saying it is my fourth last Christmas or my first new Christmas.” I think that her last Christmas was both her “third, last” Christmas and her first new Christmas. It was a time of great healing into wholeness. That was her final last Christmas in that bodily form, which would never be cured. Three weeks later, she said, “I am ready to die now.” And she closed her eyes forever, absolutely well and whole and healed.